Friday, June 03, 2016

Clinton, Trump, and the American People

I spent the last two weeks in Europe, where Austria narrowly failed to elect the first far-right head of state to hold power in that region since Francisco Franco died in 1975.  Le Monde devoted a lot of space to the election, including an op-ed by a left-center Austrian who made a very telling point about his political milieu.  He could no longer visit his Facebook page, he said, without driving up his blood pressure, because all he saw there was leftist accusations against the supporters of Norbert Hofer were Fascists.  This, he argued, was both false and useless.  Instead of simply writing off half their fellow citizens, he suggested, his friends should spent some time thinking about why a vast majority of their fellow citizens had turned completely away from the two established parties that had ruled Austria since the Second World War.  The same warning could well be addressed to virtually every nation in the North Atlantic world--and certainly to the elite of the United States of America.

My facebook page is filled with daily complaints that Donald Trump simply cannot, must not, will not, be elected President, frequently tinged with a sense that no sane, educated or respectable person could possibly support him.  I certainly agree that his election would be a serious catastrophe, but the fantasy that the moral superiority of certain better-off Americans will suffice to prevent it is very dangerous.  As I write, an average of polls shows Trump just a couple of percentage points behind Hillary Clinton, with a large number of voters undecided.  In fact, the whole story of this election reflects the enormous gap between "respectable" opinion and the beliefs of very large numbers of Americans who no longer care what their better-educated and better-off citizens think--and with good reason. 

Trump's imminent nomination indicates that several things have gone dreadfully wrong with our political system. First, it seems unable to produce leaders of genuine quality who have made a name for themselves in public service.  The problem does seem a little worse in the Republican party, where John Kasich was the only candidate with a serious record of achievement, but politicians nowadays have to spend so much time pandering and fund-raising that it is not surprising that both sides suffer from it.  But as so many have pointed out, Trump's emergence as the man who is picking up the pieces also shows that celebrity has wider appeal than government service.  Worst of all, however, the whole model upon which our system is based, of  a rational discussion of issues leading to the development of solutions to our problems, has broken down.  While some the millions of people who have voted for Trump may have real reasons to resent the state of the country and what has happened to their lives, they have very little excuse, it seems to me, for believing that he will really do anything to help. 

In writing that last sentence, I have just stepped into a growing debate which was aired last week on who is to blame for the collapse of our political system--the people or the elites?   The Anglo-American pundit Andrew Sullivan insisted, first of all, that the American economy was in remarkably good shape, and secondly, that the catastrophic war in Iraq (which he enthusiastically supported himself) was popular in the country at large, which did not hesitate to re-elect George W. Bush in 2004.  He complained, in effect, that the American people had suddenly become too stupid to appreciate all the wise leadership they had been getting--or that the leaders were only doing what they wanted anyway--and were responsible for the threatened destruction of our democracy.  Other guests suggested that the people had justifiably lost confidence in their leadership.  Regular readers know that that is my opinion as well.  Alas, our current establishment, I am afraid, is so generally pleased with itself that it will have great difficulty recognizing that it could indeed by to blame for our discontents, and this problem is going to continue regardless of the outcome of the election.

I do not, as you all know, regard Hillary Rodham Clinton as likely to do much to alter the course that the country is now on, except to involve us in some new war in the Middle East.  Yet she is surely the lesser evil of the two candidates before us, and her speech yesterday was undoubtedly the highlight of her campaign to date.  Rather than imply that she should be elected because she is a woman, or make highly questionable boasts about her fights for the underdog, or--as I had feared she would--defend establishment foreign policy, she found a kind of lowest common denominator for the campaign ahead. Donald Trump,. she said repeatedly and effectively, is both intellectually and temperamentally unfit to be President.  Today's New York Times story about the speech did unfortunately include more evidence of the ineptitude of her staff, since her campaign actually leaked the names of the four staffers who had written it.  Obviously most candidates' speeches (though not, it seems, some of Barack Obama's) have been written by staffers for a long time, but most of them have been smart enough not to admit it.  My friends are right: Trump really threatens the well-being of the US at home and abroad, and it is very alarming that he is now estimated by markets to have a 40% chance of victory.  Clinton's new line of attack will do well with educated Republicans.  But Trump could still win, and the United States will still face huge problems even if he loses, because of the almost complete disconnect between our leading economic and intellectual classes on the one hand, and the mass of the American people on the other.  The divide can't help but remind me of France in 1789 or Russia in 1917, and it is up to our leaders to start to close it.


Bozon said...


Interesting, and thought provoking.

Yet, frankly, it seems to me that Trump could hardly do more damage than Reagan did, long ago.

For many average Americans, Reagan is still their hero.That is, unfortunately, because they do not know what they are talking about.

Clinton, now, would be more like the old Reagan, though her interest group rhetoric is radically different.

All the best

Steven Winsor said...

David, I believe the biggest reason for the rise of Donald Trump is the suffocating cloak of 'political correctness' that exists today. People are so sick and tired of it, that when a candidate like Trump says things that are politically incorrect and in the manner he does, he immediately acquires an attentive audience.
The Democratic Party has turned itself over to the gender, race and sexual identity folks, leaving discussion of economic issues behind. There's millions of Americans who are not OK with that.

ed boyle said...

Let's get behind the 2nd comment historically. The professor has complained of this phenomenon in universities. In 19th century masses of Irish came. Later east europeans, Italians, Jews, Swedes. Ethnic jokes, discrimination was normal in America. PC thought I detected a couple of weeks ago reading Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby. The postion moves leftward from women, blacks towards gays. Essentialy though white European minorities have mostly intermarried. Asians and Latinos are trending that way. Blacks in the west ad somewhat in midwest, east, south, increasing ly each generation. So PC being racial discriminatory control will someday be superfluous. The backlash now as in 1850s knownothing politics is to slow immigration and foreign involvement to absorb in the genetic and cltural pool that which has arrived in a time of economic despair and technological upheaval. USA is in relative decline as Britain 100 years ago vs. Germany, USA. A multipolar world allows that PC thought, being a global universalsm of human rights, can be rejected as an invention of postwar USA, against previous etnic homogenic Eurasian powers. USA being a 'mongrel' nation and hegemon imposed this concept. We have seen that pluralistic democracy and particularly economic liberalism is differently applied in Japan, Germany, China,France. Like buddhism in East Asia was changed as it spread to China, Japan so has our enlghtenment ideals been culturally adapted.

Since W made his terrible economic and military mistakes and lost respect of other nations USA can less and less have its own will. PC thought is revealed as a US centred concept, of a certain time and place. Our system has been culturally adapted, optimized for foreign lands. They are stronger than we are in many respects while ignoring our moral sytem. Were the french on your visit morally prude but outwardly smiley like Americans? Different I should think than a'midwestern farmer's daughter' of 'I wish they could all be california girls'. Culture is built over centuries. In America over decades as we are new and turbulent. Nativist backlash is a welcome respite in such times. Linear logic of system bred politicians like Clinton, Merkel is more and more unwelcome. Lying to fit the story to ideology fits religion. Bernanke, Yellen, Draghi are steering blind. MSM, politiciams, economists have no moral center just a script like in sunday school. The real world does not follow a script. It has its own dynamic.

the bicyclist said...

From a British perspective, the parallels are interesting. We are in serious danger of voting to leave the EU, for a whole bunch of reasons, but among them is certainly a sense that "they" are no longer serious about, or even interested in, the welfare of ordinary people. And, like Americans, the ordinary people are, bizarrely, channelling this anti-establishment instinct into support for people who could hardly be more antipathetic to their interests. Boris Johnson, for example, the ex-mayor of London who was recently described by a member of his own party as just a slightly nicer version of Trump, and who is cynically stoking up xenophobia to further his own political interests at the expense of those of the people he pretends to want to "serve". We're looking for someone to blame - rightly - but blaming the wrong people; immigrants, foreigners in general, those who are dependent on welfare, etc.

The truth is that our political leaders have, since Reagan and Thatcher, largely abdicated economic affairs to the current rapacious version of global capitalism. There is barely any pretence that the economy is being managed in the interests of the majority, merely a largely ineffectual effort to mitigate the social consequences of what has become a race to the bottom.

Hope you enjoyed Puglia; a friend of mine was on the same trip.

David Kaiser said...

Thank you, bicyclist, I did enjoy the Puglia very much and I was guessing that you might have been on the tour yourself!